Patricia A. Kossmann

On Nov. 20, 1581, the British Jesuit Edmund Campion, along with two others, was tried and found guilty of high treason. As he refused to abjure his faith or his priesthood, Queen Elizabeth I ordered him to be hanged, drawn and quartered. A man of deep Christian charity and missionary zeal, this martyr was also a brilliant orator, prose stylist and writer, whose apologia (“Challenge to the Privy Council,” called by his enemies “Campion’s Brag”) is arguably a literary masterpiece. Herewith a sampling:

Many innocent hands are lifted up to heaven for you daily by those English students, whose posterity shall never die, which beyond seas, gathering virtue and sufficient knowledge for the purpose, are determined never to give you over, but either to win you heaven, or to die upon your pikes. And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.

In 1955, the editorial board of the Catholic Book Club, which is a division of America Press, instituted the Campion Award to honor writers in his name. Since then, some 30 awards have been bestowed. Honorees have been quite varied, and not limited to belles lettres. They include Jacques Maritain (1955), Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward (1960), John LaFarge, S.J. (1961), Phyllis McGinley (1976), Walter and Jean Kerr (1971), Karl Rahner, S.J. (1974), Raymond Brown, S.S. (1984), Robert Giroux (1988), Avery Dulles, S.J. (1989), Annie Dillard (1994), Chinua Achebe (1996), Daniel Berrigan (1998) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1999).

Into this distinguished and illustrious company we now welcome Dame Muriel Spark as the 2001 recipient of the Campion Award for an oeuvre that spans four decades. The octogenarian Scottish-born writer, who has been living in Tuscany for many years, is claimed as England’s own; The Sunday Telegraph calls her “Britain’s greatest living novelist.” When informed of our decision, her response was swift and gracious—even a bit surprising. She wrote: “I accept this honour with special pleasure in that I have been a devoted admirer of Edmund Campion, both as martyr and writer, for many years. I possess a reliquary containing a treasured relic of Father Campion, and of course I know Evelyn Waugh’s fine work on the saint.”

As the fictional teacher Miss Jean Brodie would have put it, when you recognize your prime, at whatever age, live life to the full! And so it has been for Muriel Spark, a distinguished woman of letters, whose books have consistently delighted and satisfied readers across several continents. Whether in verse, short story or novel, her writing is taut, crisp, concise and possessed of a unique wit. Although best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), which was successfully adapted to both the London and Broadway stages as well as the movie screen, she is the author of dozens of other books, including Memento Mori, The Public Image, The Abbess of Crewe, Loitering With Intent, The Collected Stories and, published by Doubleday in February of this year, Aiding and Abetting. Not to be overlooked are her critical biographies of Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë.

Though she is somewhat physically limited in her ability to travel—that is why there was not the customary formal reception and dinner for this year’s award presentation—Dame Muriel remains in top form. John Updike (also a Campion winner) once characterized her as “one of the few writers on either side of the Atlantic with enough resources, daring and stamina to be altering, as well as feeding, the fiction machine.”

Spark’s readers are taken on satiric jaunts through various cities, times and places, bringing them face to face, mind to mind, with life’s odd, harrowing, real perplexities. With a sharp observational eye (no doubt honed from extensive worldwide travels), she is able to put flesh—eerily familiar flesh at times—on the human predicament and its attendant conflicts. It’s all there: good versus evil, honor versus duplicity, self-aggrandizement versus self-pity. And she can be wickedly funny in the process—as funny as some characters are clever. Then, for example, there’s Lady Edwina (from Loitering With Intent) who is both funny and clever. Her son, Sir Quentin, who runs a specious group called the Autobiographical Association, brushes off nurses’ calls to put her away by attributing her symptoms and odd behavior to “fluxive precipitations.” But the eccentric woman, who often makes sudden and disruptive appearances during the group’s sessions, ultimately helps to save the day. She, with “her shaking, withered hand with its talons pointing accusingly [and] four greenish teeth through which she hissed and cackled and her pre-war tea-gowns of black lace or draped, patterned silk always hung with glittering beads.”

The author’s wit shines forth off the book page as well. After converting to Roman Catholicism in 1954, she once remarked to an interviewer: “If you’re going to do a thing, you should do it thoroughly. If you’re going to be a Christian, you may as well be a Catholic.” And there can be no doubt that her Catholicism has been a mainstay and influential force in her life—as it is in much of her fiction. Many of her previously unavailable early works are now being reissued as New Directions Classics. This is deserved; critics and reviewers have long sung the praises of Ms. Spark.

Now the editorial board of the Catholic Book Club adds its voice to the many that have gone before. Her Campion Award is a “first”: beginning this year we are proud to bestow an icon of the saint himself, specially commissioned and painted by William Hart McNichols, S.J., whose art has graced many of America’s covers. The original now hangs in the reading room of America House. Ms. Spark has received a quality reproduction, along with a citation, in a large frame for display. It is dated Dec. 1, which is the feast of St. Edmund Campion. Once again, we received a gracious acknowledgment for the “beautiful,” “lovely” and “tasteful” presentation.

Dame Muriel Spark, the pleasure is all ours. Congratulations—and thanks for a literary legacy of “prime” quality.

Patricia A. Kossmann is America’s literary editor.